Jackson County’s jail task force is narrowing its scope.
The group, facing a deadline next May, held its first meeting Wednesday and looked over a mission statement focused on looking at “the potential capacity and type of jail the Jackson County community needs and deserves.”
County Executive Frank White Jr. has said he’s open to building a new jail, and county legislators say the county is clearly on that path. White said the task force needs to look at a new jail’s size.
“I think this is what this task force is charged to do,” he said,
When he announced the task force more than a month ago, White said it would look at issues such as maintenance and staffing costs, current and future capacity needs, regional cooperation, ways to prevent people from going to jail again and again, and alternatives to incarceration.
But Co-Chair Gayle Holliday, of the political club Freedom Inc., said that was too much and pointed to the narrower mission statement that officials have developed.
That got some push-back from task force member Brandon Ellington, a state representative whose district includes parts of east Kansas City and western Independence. Ellington said he wants “an empirical breakdown” on how the jail is operating and how its problems arose before moving on to discussing a new jail. He asked for detailed data, from spending on inmate services to jail commissary fees.
“It almost seems as if the task force is put together … to support a new jail … because that’s not what I agreed to …” he said.
White suggested that there’s room for that more detailed conversation, too.
“The whole thing – what I’m trying to do, Brandon – is educate the public,” White said.
Task force members have discussed the need to look at a variety of issues, including who goes to jail and who stays there for long periods of time. Brian Johnson, health and behavioral services compliance manager, outlined some of those answers.
Nationally, he said, nine out of 10 of those sitting in jail awaiting trial are there because they cannot afford bail – a life disruption that often affects whether a person keeps his job, makes car payments and is able to do any number of other things to sustain oneself and one’s family.
“Is this wrong? No. Is this right? No. It’s just the way it is,” Johnson said.
He also said the more crowded a jail is, the more likely assaults of guards and inmates become.
“Jails are process-driven organizations. … When we get to design capacity, our process starts to break down,” Johnson said.
Diana Turner, interim director of the county Department of Corrections, underlined added training since 2015 and roughly $4 million in improvements at the County Detention Center in recent years.
“We want to have a premier caliber academy at our facility …” she said.
Turner said officials continue to work on gaining national accreditation, a move recommended by a 2015 jail task force and described at the time as a process taking several years.
“In corrections, it is a very, very long process,” she said.
The task force meets again Jan. 12. It also plans two public hearings.
Co-Chair John Fiero said, “Throughout this process, we want to hear from the community.”